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Travel much? One company sees barcodes in your future
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An airline ticket-counter worker would see a screen much like this while checking in someone using the PassPro system developed by LDC, Inc. of Edina. Information including facial picture, luggage picture, fingerprint, and more is encoded on a 2-D barcode. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
In March, the director of the Transportation Security Administration told Congress the agency would test a so-called "registered traveler" program in airports by June. The idea is to speed up check-in and security for passengers who agree to a background check beforehand. The announcement came as something of a surprise, and companies with screening technology are scrambling to be involved, including one in Edina.

Edina, Minn. — It may seem a long way from hospital ID tags to stopping terrorists. But not if you work for Laser Data Command.

By working for years with ID cards of various types, the Edina company has become very skilled with bar codes. And not the standard supermarket variety: These can hold pictures, fingerprints and other basic information security officials might want to know about air travelers.

CEO John Barclay runs an employee named Scott through a mock-up of the company's airport system, called "PassPro." We start at check-in, scanning Scott's driver's license to get name, address, and vital statistics. A small camera captures a Scott's face; a small pad takes his fingerprint. Scott's luggage goes onto the scale.

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Image Boarding by barcode

"We capture an image of the bag, and we take its weight as well," Barclay says. "Pump the data -- that is, compressed image, fingerprint, and identification data, that's all in this 2-D barcode -- onto the boarding pass."

A boarding pass prints with a two-inch rectangle that looks like static on a TV screen. A barcoded bag tag prints as well. Scott's face and finger are now linked with both his boarding pass and his luggage -- none of which is done today.

Federal officials say this simple step of identification is a crucial component of better screening -- confirming that the person holding the boarding pass and putting a bag in the belly of the plane is who he says he is. It's impossible to prove, but Barclay says that step alone would have flagged four 9-11 hijackers who swapped boarding passes to confound authorities.

Along with the ID information, there's something else hidden in that bar code Scott is carrying. As he approaches the security checkpoint, we see what it is. Barclay leads the way: "The barcode is read, yielding his picture out of the bar code, along with the index."

"The index:" a measure of how much security attention Scott needs. Eventually, federal officials hope to rate everyone getting on a plane -- green, yellow or red, though officials no longer prefer to use the color analogy. For this summer, the index will probably have just two settings: Registered, and unregistered. As a "registered traveler," Scott would theoretically breeze through security because he'd been thoroughly vetted ahead of time. He'd also get a card in the mail with his barcode on it, to make future check-ins even faster.

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Image Registered traveler card prototype

Only a few months ago officials would have called Scott a "trusted traveler" -- also terminology that fell out of favor, since it seems to imply everyone else is not to be trusted. Despite the name change, civil liberties groups are still wary of the program. Consumer advocate and travel expert Edward Hasbrouck fears systems like PassPro -- complete with fingerprints and photos -- could be the first step toward government recording where we travel.

"These are fundamental rights that are being monitored and surveilled, effectively. I think it's very chilling for people to know that their movements could later be subject to that kind of scrutiny," Hasbrouck says.

PassPro developer John Barclay says he has no interest in facilitating such use of passenger information. If nothing else, he says, that would be a bad business move. He cites the backlash against Northwest and other airlines accused of giving passenger data to the government without consent.

Transportation Security officials say "registered traveler" testing is still on track to happen over June, July and August. They won't say whether PassPro has caught their eye, or what cities might host the testing. But there's a chance PassPro will get a trial run close to home. Northwest Airlines and the Metropolitan Airports Commission are lobbying hard to make the Twin Cities one of the first airports to test the "registered traveler" program.

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